By Brian Freedman
d.tech’s very own Russ Moeller had a very exciting previous life as a war photographer in Croatia and Bosnia, during the summer of 1992, photographing the Balkan Conflict. Who knew? I had the privilege to hear his story, and I think the d.tech community will be wowed by what one of our own teachers has been through.
Q: What was the main reason you left your normal American lifestyle at home, and decided to travel to take photos?
I wanted to make a huge career leap. I thought that if I was successful taking pictures in Bosnia, that it would launch a career with an international press company. I wasn’t aware of how different life would be in Croatia and Bosnia, compared to home in the U.S. Croatia was safe for the most part, but Bosnia was nuts. There were daily, random artillery shells fired into the town where we stationed ourselves. The train into the city was a hell ride. The Serbians had figured out how to shell the train station – and the train itself. So the train pulled in at top speed, people ran off the train and into cover as soon as it reached the station. The station was a modern building with big glass windows. Every one of the windows was blown out by shell fire. The town was the same way. Our run down motel was a mess. A shell blew up outside the main doors, and shrapnel made its way into the lobby.
Q: What was your main focus on the trip? What type of photos were you interested in taking?
I told myself in the beginning that that I was just going to take pictures of the refugees, and avoid the front line fighting. I have always been interested in portrait photography, and thought I could capture the sadness of the refugees well for international papers. Then we made connections with locals in Bosnia who were incredibly vibrant folks. We met a muslim Bosnian rebel named Gypsy. He let us stay with him, he introduced us to other fighters and commanders fighting the Serbs. He took my friend, Jim, to the front line. He helped me make connections with other people in the town. Eventually this lead me to the front as well.
Q: Were there any impactful moments that happened on this trip that made you think about the world with a new perspective?
The most impactful moments were when an artillery shell landed too close. Hit a building near where Jim and I were walking. Never forget the moment. Scary as hell. Then, being at the front line was insane. We were with some British soldiers who were AWOL from their units in England. They and some French Foreign Legion soldiers decided to stir things up on the line. They fired an anti-tank weapon at the Serb position. This upset the Serbs, who fired back with everything they had. I found refuge in a deep hole, and pondered what I was doing there. I don’t regret it, though. Made some lifelong friends who I consider brothers.
Q: If you were to go back and do this trip again, would you? How would you personally reflect on this experience?
I have frequent nightmares about the front line. There were so many things that could have gone wrong there. Snipers, mines, etc. As a parent, I would never put myself in that position again. I felt bad for my parents while I was there, but now as a parent, I really can appreciate their concern. I wore a kevlar vest and someone gave me a helmet, but none of that protection can really help you when someone has your number. I saw lots of people injured, and many journalists got killed in the war. There were many disturbing and sad moments. One of the reasons I switched careers to teaching, was so that I could have some positive impact in people’s lives. Journalists don’t really have this ability. They just observe stuff – and maybe change minds about conflict.